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BLM chief asks for dialogue

Kathleen Clarke says she's seeking common ground with activists

Kathleen Clarke is seeking common ground with the environmental community as the Bush administration charts a new course in the debate over the future of public forestlands.

There is great opportunity to work together now, said the national director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The president set the table ' now it's up to us to deliver.

This is about coming together with common sense and really understanding what the opportunities are for us to restore forest health, rangeland health and to promote safe and healthy communities, she said during an interview Monday.

She was referring to President Bush's visit to Southern Oregon last week in which he announced a forest health proposal to reduce the unnatural buildup of forest fuel following nearly a century of fire suppression. That buildup, coupled with past logging practices, has been blamed by many for creating a devastating fire season across the West this year.

I think a lot of environmentalists, when you say thinning, see clearcuts, she said. That is not what we intend to do.

The goal is to thin smaller trees to create forests that are similar to those before aggressive firefighting began nearly a century ago, said Clarke, who was director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources before being appointed to head the BLM in the Bush administration.

The federal government is not in the business of clearcutting now, she said. It is not what we're doing. It is not what we're proposing.

Instead, she called it a reasonable approach to forest thinning. That includes salvaging in burned areas, she said.

We need to try to get rid of the fuel loading out there so we can protect what our Northwest forests offer, she said.

During a Monday visit to the area scorched by the Timbered Rock fire about 10 miles north of Trail, Clarke learned that more than a dozen northern spotted owl nesting sites were disturbed.

Catastrophic fires also harm watersheds and create air quality problems, she said.

While visiting the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise last week, Clarke was told the long-term weather pattern over the next year looks unchanged, meaning the drought cycle is likely to continue.

If that holds true, then here we go again, she said. We've got to get a handle on this or we'll have year after year of catastrophic fires.

She believes the president's proposal coupled with the National Fire Plan project can help ward off disastrous fires.

We have a real clear charge to pull together and put programs in place on the ground that are going to very swiftly move to protect the areas that are at greatest risk ' our interface areas and sensitive environmental areas, she said.

The BLM has much more urban interface land than the Forest Service, she noted.

If we're not controlling what goes on in the BLM lands, the fires will come down and go into the communities, she said. We need to make sure we are putting appropriate buffers into fuel treatment reductions.

Clarke rejects the argument by some that the agency will use the need to thin trees in the urban interface as an excuse to log across public lands.

I don't think we are looking at going into massive commercial logging, she said. But we are looking at commercial thinning ... because we don't have the resources within government to go out and take that job on.

She observed that Bush's proposal calls for stewardship contracting authority for both departments of Interior and Agriculture. That would allow the agencies to prescribe to contractors what would be removed, she said.

The point, she said, would be to remove smaller trees that are more susceptible to fire.

The projects I've been out on, they are leaving all the big trees and going in for the smaller ones ' that is standard practice out there now, she said. But you take it all out when you have these catastrophic fires, as well as taking out wildlife.

If we don't thin, then we're at risk of losing all of it, she added.

The thinning projects the administration envisions can provide income as well as reduced fire danger for rural communities, she said.

We've got to look at this holistically and have a sense of shared responsibility, a shared commitment, she said. Managing fire is going to be a significant challenge to all of us.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

Activists will talk, and remain vigilant

Environmental leaders say they will move forward with the Bush administration to find common ground but plan to watch every step of the way.

That was the reaction of several activists after meeting in a closed session with Kathleen Clarke, national director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and Elaine Marquis Brong, new state director for the BLM in Oregon and Washington.

We heard some good things ' we do have some common ground, said Dominick DellaSala, a World Wildlife Fund scientist based in Ashland.

For instance, the directors' assurance that old-growth trees would not be part of a fuels reduction plan was warmly received, DellaSala said.

This is something we all agree on, he said. If BLM projects go forward without old-growth and roadless area components, they should be able to go through quickly.

But we really want to make sure the words we heard today are followed by actions that are consistent on what we agreed on, he added.

Cindy Deacon Williams, forest watch monitor for the Ashland-based Headwaters environmental group, agreed.

The other point that looked like a point of agreement is keeping the public involvement in the process, she said. Streamlining should not be a code word for keeping the public out.

The Bush administration repeatedly has stressed the need to streamline the process to hasten work on the ground.

But Clarke and Brong told us the most important thing that needs to happen in streamlining is to examine the agency process so they operate more efficiently but not reduce opportunities for the public to be involved, Williams said.

While activists said there are still areas of concern, including coupling commercial logging with fuels reduction projects and thinning beyond urban interface areas, they felt some common ground had been reached.

If the BLM works in a collaborative and cooperative manner with the public, much can be accomplished, Williams concluded.

This is a good first step, she said. We're now waiting to see if they not only listened but also heard what we said. The proof will be in their future action.